Improving Relations with Havana: Is the U.S. Up to the Challenge?

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Speaking recently before a university audience in Kentucky, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared her thoughts about the future of U.S.-Cuban relations. She touched on many headline-grabbing issues, but her comment that it’s her “personal belief that the Castros do not want to see an end to the embargo and do not want to see normalization with the United States, because they would then lose all of their excuses for what hasn’t happened in Cuba in the last 50 years” is what got Cuba’s, and the international media’s, attention.

Over the weekend, Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon called Secretary Clinton’s bluff with a challenge to the United States to end its embargo on Cuba, which, for five decades, has failed to isolate Havana. “If she really thinks that the blockade benefits the Cuban government–which she wants to undermine–the solution is very simple: that they lift it even for a year to see whether it is in our interest or theirs.”

Lifting the embargo isn’t a novel idea (see our blog post from last October on the near-unanimous annual UN General Assembly vote condemning the U.S. embargo), but it’s still a good one! But we’re not holding our breath. Why not?

Despite polls and public statements showing a generational shift in the attitudes towards Cuba among the Cuban-American community in south Florida, hard-line Cuban-American voices remain a driving and well-funded force for maintaining the status quo.

Earlier this month, famed Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio hosted a fundraising event for the Democratic Party in Miami. At a cost of $30,400 per couple, we decided to pass on attending; the event, however, was attended by President Obama. Prior to the event, Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, contended in a piece in The Huffington Post that the only reason for the Estefans to hold this event was to get the President’s ear on Cuba policy–and indeed, that’s what happened. According to Reuters, the President received from the Estefans letters from Guillermo Farinas and the mother of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, two hunger strikers who’ve called on Raúl Castro to release political prisoners who are ill (Zapata Tamayo died during his hunger strike in February). The Estefans also reportedly showed the President photos of Cuban police breaking up a recent march by the “Ladies in White,” a group founded by the relatives of detained dissidents.

While President Obama thanked the Estefans for their organizational efforts, he thankfully did not make direct remarks on current U.S-Cuba relations which could have closed the door to needed policy changes. Yet his appearance in Miami, coupled with the personal–but, of course, influential–opinions openly aired by Secretary Clinton in Louisville, make us concerned that the Obama Administration could be laying the groundwork that will excuse them from doing the right thing-–i.e., unconditionally pursuing further changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba to restore the right to travel to all U.S. citizens and benefit many other citizens with jobs and markets. We hope we are wrong about this. Restricted access to Cuba limits the public and governmental access to realities of Cuba today. As Raúl Castro moves away from painting Cuba as victim, as he did in recent remarks delivered before Cuba’s Communist Youth, it’s time for the United States to stop playing the “blame game” and instead face Cuba on common ground.